Trout fishing in Africa
Far from any civilisation, the rivers and lakes within Mount Kenya National Park offer a fly fishing experience like no other
Words & photography by Patrick Tillard
It’s six-thirty in the morning, at an altitude of 3000m, and a golden band of sunlight is shifting down the sheer bluffs of Mount Kenya. I tread gingerly through the bog, my eyes and ears pricked for the slightest noise. Last night, as we returned to our bandas just as the last trace of dusk faded to inky darkness, we bumped into a young male leopard scurrying across the forest track. He stopped briefly, no more than 10 metres away, his wide-eyed stare slicing through mine, before slinking silently into the undergrowth.
The path I walk now to the river indicates similar danger; freshly cut by buffaloes in the night as they leave the forest to graze the open pampas. Although back in the shade of the bush, there is no doubt they are close-by, as are elephant and hyena. Close encounters with these animals, while on foot, are best avoided.
On the equator, the sun rises as fast and dramatic as it falls. As we reach the water, warmth is already puncturing the cold mountainous air, the strong aroma of upland shrubs balms the soft breeze and the cover resonates with exotic birdsong. From the shrinking glaciers way above, icy flows gather momentum through the rocks and moorlands, forging a long course towards the Indian Ocean. The upper reaches, still far from any rural communities that depend on these waters for survival, run narrow and crystal clear, and are teaming with brown trout – wild specimens heralding from fish stocked by early colonial settlers such as Ewart Grogan back in the 1900s, onerously transported from Loch Leven in Scotland by boat and ox-cart.
My guide crawls on hands and knees and spies into a pool no wider than a single step. He turns and beckons me into position, an excited glint in his eye. Using a bow and arrow cast I flick a dry fly into the bubbling current – there is a subtle art to fishing Kenya’s streams; a blend of skill and stealth – and a fish hits the imitation as if a starved crocodile during the wildebeest migration. It has likely never seen a fisherman’s lure before. The small brownie charges irately up and down the small pool before succumbing to hand, a rich golden flank peppered with black and rose freckles.
The intimate fishing within these elevated lands is as untapped as it is remote. Reaching the town of Chogoria in the Tharaka-Nithi County a few days earlier, 180km from Nairobi, passing swaths of tea, banana plantations, rice fields and hectic stalls selling assorted fruits and kitsch wares, we turned onto a red-dirt road carving a track up the mountain. For 26km the car jerked over potholes the size of bathtubs and spine-juggling corrugations, through luscious upland forest bruised by elephant and thick, impenetrable bamboo, opening up into wide heaths of grass tussocks browsed by reedbuck, waterbuck and eland. Here, the bandas of Mt Kenya National Park, the acclimatising stopover for hikers and porters, sit in the shadow of the sacred massif.
From past accounts, however, our journey was relatively comfortable – it wasn’t all that long ago that the treacherous road up the mountain was inaccessible to vehicles, eviscerated by the heavy annual rains. My guide learned of these rivers by studying Google Earth maps, and then, drunk on the idea of unearthing hidden gems, dedicated days and weeks to exploring them on foot with nothing but a few provisions on his back and a rod in his hand. His hunch was right. He found mile after mile of enticing pools and riffles that were totally unexploited. And, bar for the occasional anglers he takes into this wild and testing hinterland, they remain just so.
The searing sun is high overhead as we break for lunch. The Batian peak of Mount Kenya juts into an enormous cobalt sky, the first string of alpinists already descending the 5,200m summit having woken well before sunrise. My guide has something totally different planned for the afternoon. In the lakes higher up the mountain, where the air is silky thin and wildlife is scarce, stocked rainbow trout have been left to their own devices and have taken to the conditions with unprecedented zeal.
In less than two years, fish grow from fingerlings to 3lb brutes, climbing well into double figures.
Back on hands and knees, we spot at least eight fat trout lying in the translucent shallows only a few feet from the bank, ranging from 4lb to 12lb. My guide offers a point of reference, three feet in front of the fish, and tells me to strip the line slowly, hoping to induce a follow. As expected, he’s right. A rainbow turns with intent as the fly swings past its nose, making a move at the last minute. A 5lb hen sporting vibrant pink and silver erupts through the surface. It is the first of many.
Far from any civilisation, bar for the climbers scaling Africa’s second highest mountain, it is unlike any other fishing to be found within the pages of the atlas. It is not for the faint hearted – the highest lake, Michaelson, sits above the clouds at an altitude of 4,000m and commands a gruelling hike. But it is worth the effort. Mount Kenya, like so much of Africa, is an area of spectacular extremes and constant surprise.
Descending the steep crags of the mountain as a dense mist closes in, there is one last stop. It is a complete change once more.
A slender ribbon of fast water lined by giant heather tumbles through deep gorges and over waterfalls that appear without warning, the noise masked by thick vegetation. We enjoy another hour of constant action, as small, feisty brown trout hurl themselves at our myriad nymphs and dry fly patterns. I easily lose track of time, but thankfully Sven is not so easily led awry. As the sun melts behind the craggy ridge, a riot of colour streaking across the enormous sky, we reluctantly peel ourselves from the river. But we must; soon the leopards and buffaloes will be leaving the bush.
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